Religion Today

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Between Life and Death

Pop culture has two new icons. The first are zombies who appear in books, graphic novels and films about the (supposedly) coming zombie apocalypse (the Centers for Disease Control even released a helpful bulletin) and in recast classic novels, such as "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." The second are vampires, which appear in the wildly popular "Twilight" series of books and films, to say nothing of rewritten novels like "Little Vampire Women."

Vampires and zombies are not new to English fiction. Vampires have starred in stories since the early 1800s, while zombies began appearing in the early 1900s. Popular interest in them should be seen alongside two other fictional creatures, such as Dr. Frankenstein's monster, created by Mary Shelley in 1818; and golems, animated human-shaped beings made from clay.
On one level, these four imaginary beings are just scary creatures to build a story around. At another, they reveal our society's fascination with life and death, particularly death.
All four of these creatures present ways the dead remain alive. By writing stories and creating films about these beings, we use them to explore the difference between life and death. Each one is an interstitial figure that embodies elements of being alive and being dead. By putting these states together in different ways, we can think about their meaning.
In the 1500s, golem stories had a heyday with Jewish rabbis in Eastern Europe. Golems were created by pious rabbis, whose righteousness gave them the power to create -- in imitation of God -- life.
In the most famous story, the Jews of Prague are threatened with mass murder by an emperor. To prevent the slaughter, Rabbi Judah Loew creates a golem out of clay (just as God created Adam out of dust), bringing it to life with prayer and a holy word. When the golem goes beyond his orders and becomes uncontrollably violent, Judah gives him the word for death, and the golem stops.
In Shelley's story, Dr. Frankenstein created his nameless creature not from clay, but from parts taken from different bodies. Frankenstein represents not piety, but the forefront of science, animating the body with electricity rather than prayer. When the monster comes to life, Frankenstein runs away in fear, leaving the monster to fend for itself. The creature seeks out human contact but, when he tries to join in, his horrible looks cause everyone to reject him. In emotional agony from this, the creature turns on his maker.
The point is that human life needs society to thrive. Without it, the excited emotions lead to violence, especially violence against one's creator.
Frankenstein films add to Shelley's story by focusing on the brain used in the creature; it is abnormal, often coming from a condemned psychopath. This explains the creature's violence rather than his social rejection.
Vampires begin with a whole human body, rather than parts. They are technically dead, as is the most famous vampire, Count Dracula, of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel. But rather than featuring human control of the revivified being, vampire stories usually focus on the vampires' control of living humans and their attempts to change them into undead vampires. Rather than the living animating the dead, vampires are the dead bringing the living to their state.
Vampires control their victims by drinking their blood. Since the vampire "maker" possesses the victim's blood, they can guide their actions. This differs from the control exercised by the rabbi over the golem through the holy word or of the independence of Frankenstein's creature given by his brain.
Zombies also play with life and death, but in another direction. Early 20th-century zombies were animated corpses. As corpses, they were decaying. They had no intelligence, brains or emotions, and existed by eating human flesh.
Later films began to create zombies from living people, whether through disease (usually escaped from a government laboratory), radiation, demonic possession or aliens. Mindlessly driven by hunger, they ate as their bodies continued to putrefy. They were infectious, walking slowly, but spreading zombie contagion quickly. If the contagion reached far enough, the Zombie Apocalypse would arrive and, along with it, the end of humanity.
The details of these four "alive-dead creatures" cannot be pinned down because the stories continually change them. While general descriptions are clear, the details change as writers, actors and producers try out different ideas to see how they affect the interplay between life and death. This is what gives the stories their power -- they enable us to explore what it means to be alive and to be dead, by watching creatures who are both.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Birth Control and Religions

It is a misnomer to say "women use birth control." Women and men use birth control. Pregnancy can only happen with the involvement of men and, so any steps taken to prevent pregnancy benefit both men and women. Sexual intimacy constitutes a key ingredient of marriage, and the ability to engage in it regularly benefits both partners.

Given the current state of medical practice, the burden and cost of long-term birth control usually falls on women, both financially and medically. Couples who choose to use birth control, as well as their existing families, profit in numerous ways from women shouldering this burden.
From this perspective, it is a benefit to women especially, but also to men, that birth control is included in the new medical insurance guidelines issued in August 2011. The guidelines identify coverage for basic medical procedures and drugs. This, at least, lifts the financial burden.
Unfortunately, the universal applicability of last August's guidelines impinged upon religious belief and practice. Although the guidelines did not require churches and other central religious institutions to provide this benefit in their insurance, they did require religiously sponsored institutions, such as hospitals and orphanages, to do so.
When the Catholic Church and other religious organizations protested, a compromise plan was put forward that allows religious institutions to avoid directly supporting birth control in the insurance, but provides that benefit to employees who desire it. Like many compromises, the new plan satisfies neither side. In this election year, access to contraception has now become a matter of political debate.
Accusations have been made that the contraception requirement violates First Amendment rights to freedom of religion. Others argue that lack of such a requirement violates the insured woman's Fifth Amendment rights to due process under the law.
The heat generated by these charges hides a more constitutionally significant problem. In previous First Amendment cases, a religious organization or individual is nearly always pitted against an outside entity. In this situation, the rights of a religious organization are pitted against the rights of religious individuals, even those of its own members.
To streamline the discussion, let's take the simplified scenario of a hospital owned and operated by the Catholic Church, where all its employees belong to the Catholic Church. Catholic doctrine deems birth control a sin (punishable by exclusion from communion). Since all the employees belong to the Church, one might think that it would be fine for the hospital to exclude birth control from its health plan.
But it turns out that Catholic parishioners do not agree with or even follow this doctrine. A recent survey indicates that 98 percent of Catholic women who have been sexually active have used birth control. That also means that approximately 98 percent of men married to these women have used birth control. While it is unclear from the survey what percentage of the entire Catholic laity that equals, Catholics are the only large religious group in the United States where the majority of members think that birth control should be included in health benefits.
If this disagreement went to court, it would turn out that the judge would be required to decide between a religious institution and the majority of its members. The court would be put in the position of either enforcing religious doctrine on recalcitrant members or declaring the freedom of religious people from having their rights violated by their own religion.
As the legal principles of the separation of church and state have been developed in our country, a key criterion is that the government should not become entangled in matters of religion. Having to decide between a religion's leaders and its followers certainly constitutes undue government entanglement. I can only say that we live interesting times.

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